In a reversal of policy, Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. said yesterday that honorable discharges should be given to 11 Navy recruits whose blood shows exposure to the AIDS virus.
The 11 recruits are suing the Navy in U.S. District Court here seeking to rejoin their units. The Navy has been restrained from carrying out the discharges by a court order that expires today.
According to Navy lawyer Jeffrey Moon, Lehman decided to upgrade the recruits' discharges from general to honorable. "There will be no reference on any documents why they are being discharged," Moon said.
Other recruits, who are not part of the lawsuit and who also have tested positive, were discharged recently in San Diego without the upgraded discharges.
Moon did not elaborate on why Lehman changed the policy and repeated past Navy assertions that general discharges carry no stigma.
Moon disclosed the policy change at a hearing yesterday before U.S. District Judge Louis Oberdorfer on whether to extend the restraining order against the Navy dismissals.
The lawsuit does not challenge the military's screening policies on acquired immune deficiency syndrome and applies only to a small number of Navy recruits with positive tests who joined the service just before or during the start of mass blood screenings for all military recruits last fall.
Richard Wertheimer, a D.C. lawyer representing the 11 recruits, said he was pleased by Lehman's order, but said the recruits would press their lawsuit for reinstatement.
Wertheimer said the Navy's policy of discharging seamen is unfair because it goes further than the AIDS policy issued by Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger.
Weinberger's policy states that individuals who test positive should be rejected for service before they are inducted. A second policy issued by Lehman allows seamen to be discharged if they have been in the Navy less than six months before the exposure to AIDS is discovered, Wertheimer said.
"Those who have been inducted sell their possessions, change their lives and make a material reliance on a military career," he argued.
Moon said the new recruits could be dismissed properly because "the Navy doesn't have any investment in these people . . . . There is no irreparable injury . . . . The loss is the same as when others lose jobs; some degree of self-esteem, income, benefits."
Judge Oberdorfer said he will consider continuing the restraining order until the U.S. Court of Appeals can review the case.